A Family Tradizione

Dry finish insideBeing Italian-American, winemaking for me each year brings back so many great memories of when I was young. My great-grandfather, Giuseppe Firenze, my grandpas, Vincenzo “Jim” Maturo and Ferdinando Nero, and my dad Pete all made wine. They would each make about 200 gallons (~750 L) a year to share with others on weekends, which were filled with relatives and friends visiting from near and far, sharing good conversation and good wine.

Every year, on a Saturday in September, they would each have 60 or 70 boxes of grapes delivered by John, a family friend and fruit wholesaler in Amsterdam, New York. The wooden boxes would just barely fit through the standard cellar window and they would be stacked up in the basement ready for the crush. John made many deliveries in those days to the Italians in town and it was customary at each stop to have a little wine from last year’s vintage. It must have been a tough ride back to Amsterdam.

When I was a young boy and company came to Grandpa Jim’s house, it was my job to go down to the cellar wine room and pour off a jug full of wine from the large oak barrel sitting in its cradle. Wine was always a part of the meals we shared with family and sometimes we kids would mix the little wine they gave us with some ginger ale to make a kind of wine spritzer.

By the late 1960s the grandpas stopped making wine. My father soon followed, and as I reached my 20s the tradition of winemaking in my family had ended. By 1989, I had moved and was living with my family in Vermont. One day my dad called and asked if I would like all the winemaking equipment they had — if not, he was going to get rid of it. I drove over to take a look and decided that day I was going to give it a try. Grandpa Jim and my grandma were still living next to my folks and Gramp was happy I was going to make wine and offered many suggestions as to how to proceed.

In those first years, I used my family’s crusher, press, barrels and all their other tools of the trade. Over the last 25+ years, I have had to replace most of it. The only piece that is still in use from what was handed down is the old press from the 1920s. There is still one old barrel sitting in our yard holding up a bird condo and a few years back my dad took another one of the old barrels and planed down the staves and made religious crosses out of the wood for members of our family. The grain of the oak still showed a bit of red wine color and the black due to being charred during its previous life as a bourbon barrel.

These days, our entire family gathers in mid-September for our annual wine fest. We start with the blessing of the grapes by our local parish priest and then the crushing begins. We have a tub with 40 pounds of grapes on the ground too for anyone who wants to experience the fun of foot stomping (those grapes stay separate from the rest of the crush and the bottles come with the warning that someone’s foot was involved!) While that is going on, there is a bouncy house for the little ones and tables of food consisting of various imported Italian salamis and cheeses, followed by a big dinner with lasagna, eggplant parmesan and other delights. Of course there is the partaking of last year’s vintage and the simple joy of sharing the day with family. The wonderful tradition of winemaking in my family carries on, and I believe our two daughters’ families will continue it when the day comes for me to hand down my equipment. Salute!